June 15, 2011
“Oh, pretty good. Went and did a little bit of fishing yesterday,” said George Clinton, chuckling slyly in his oh-so-raspy voice on the other end of the telephone line, when I asked him how he was feeling. And it was exactly how I expected the influential funkster to sound. Though the 69-year-old Clinton was recently hospitalized at the end of May, he’s apparently ready to give up the funk again and resume touring.
The colorfully-coiffed George Clinton is best known as the ringleader, singer, songwriter and producer of the Parliament and Funkadelic bands during the 1970s and early 1980s. The two groups had an incestuous relationship, sharing and swapping players, and both were known for their influential groove-based funk, elaborate stage shows and costumed members. Clinton followed that up with a solo career, and still records and performs with various backing band incarnations. The influence of his music carries on, often serving as building blocks for different genres, as he is among the most sampled artists in hip-hop today.
Earlier this May, Clinton donated a replica of his stage prop extraordinaire, the Mothership, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which will open on the National Mall in 2015. The original Mothership was a life-sized, smoke-spewing spaceship-for-one with flashing lights that transported Clinton down to the stage during Parliament-Funkadelic shows during the late 1970s and very early 1980s. “It’s a large iconic object [that] resonates with so many people,” said Dwandalyn R. Reece, the museum’s curator of music history. “Not only the group itself and George Clinton, but also the message. . . .This whole concept of being in outer space, in terms of liberation and living in a different level of consciousness.”
The initial idea for the prop came from Parliament’s classic 1976 album Mothership Connection. Instead of an unrelated collection of singles, there was an underlying narrative theme to the record, incorporating characters such as “Starchild,” an alien funk messiah who has come to spread the funk. “After West Side Story, Sgt. Pepper’s, Hair, Tommy–after those—they made them like rock operas,” said Clinton. “We wanted a funk opera. And so I figured that characters live longer than rock stars do.”
The Mothership served as “Starchild’s” mode of interstellar transport, and the original version made its first appearance at a 1976 Parliament gig at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. On that tour and future tours the ship would light up and descend upon the stage from 40 feet in the air like a UFO, spewing smoke. Upon its landing, George Clinton would emerge in full regalia, strutting out as “Starchild,” (or on later tours, sometimes as “Dr. Funkenstein”) often dressed in furs, sunglasses and carrying a cane, like a space pimp ready to spread the funk to those who needed it.
Audiences ate it up. “A lot of cats just came to see the spaceship,” said Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Mike Hampton in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview. “It’s hard to think you’re doing something musically when you’re competing with that.
And even the band was impressed with the prop. “It was phenomenal, man. You couldn’t describe it,” recalled keyboardist Bernie Worrell to The Washington Post. “I can play and not look at the keys. I watched it every time it would come down.”
The elaborate stage show and costumes, however, came with a price, and by 1981, increasing debts and dissatisfaction among band members, among other things, led to a breakdown in the band and a period of inactivity. Some of the group’s equipment was brought back to Washington, DC and placed in storage, but with no revenue coming in, it soon had to be sold.
One of the group’s promoters, Brooks Kirkendall, was forced to store the Mothership in his mother’s garage in Clinton, MD. After six months she demanded that it the Mothership be removed. Unable to make contact with any band members, including Clinton, Kirkendall loaded the Mothership into a U-Haul in 1982 with the help of a co-worker and left it at a junkyard in Seat Pleasant. The Mothership has been off the radar ever since.
The replica that Clinton donated this past May is a 1,200-pound aluminum hunk of funk that was constructed in the 1990s. It had been sitting in his recording studio back in Florida. But is it as hip on that ship as the original? “It’s the exact same,” says Clinton. “Same blueprint, same everything!” And he thinks it’s quite appropriate to have the NMAAHC serve as his Mothership’s final resting place. “Our music’s the DNA for the hip-hop and dance music in general,” says Clinton. “Smithsonian is a fitting place for the spaceship.”
June 8, 2011
Country artist Victoria Blackie (Navajo) may only be 23-years-old, but she’s been performing for decades. This 5’1” Salt Lake City native packs a deceptively powerful voice, and likens herself to more traditional country greats like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. You can catch her this Saturday, June 11, performing outside the National Museum of the American Indian, with two other country singers, Rebecca Miller (Six Nations, Ontario, Canada) and Becky Hobbs (Cherokee) from 5-7 p.m.
Things started out early musically for Blackie. Her singing talent was first discovered by her aunt, Martha Chavez, who then ended up doubling as her babysitter and vocal coach. By the time Blackie was 1 and a half years old she was receiving singing lessons, and by the time she was 3 years old, she was performing in public. Blackie even got a taste of international touring at a young age, traveling to Japan with a teen pop band at age 13. Later that year she went on to perform at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Despite Blackie’s precociousness, mainstream country remains a tough industry to break into, and one where minorities have historically been under-represented. “Have you ever seen a Native American country singer?” Blackie responded to Utah’s City Weekly regarding the ease of acceptance into the country scene.
Regardless, 2010 was a big year for Blackie, as she was nominated in eight categories in the Native American Music Awards for her first album, Wanted Man, capturing the prestigious “Debut Artist of the Year Award.”
She’s currently working on a new album of originals as well as covers of traditional country songs.
Victoria Blackie (Navajo) will be playing along with Rebecca Miller (Six Nations, Ontario, Canada) and Becky Hobbs (Cherokee) outside of the main entrance of NMAI this Saturday, June 11, from 5-7pm.
June 2, 2011
Brothers Hays and Ryan Holladay, better known as the DC’s electro-pop group Bluebrain, have embraced the creative constraints of iPhone GPS technology on their just-released location-aware music project, The National Mall.
This “soundtrack” is actually an app that will only work while strolling around Washington, D.C.’s ample National Mall. Ambient music, percussion and sound effects surge and sigh, synced to the sights, landmarks and monuments at hand, smoothly changing as the listener moves throughout the 264 possible music “zones” across the Mall.
The app is available free at the Apple App Store for iPhone, even though there’s nearly three hours of music included in total. “It’s the Mall,” Ryan Holladay told the The Washington Post. “You don’t pay for anything down there.”
Android and iPad versions of The National Mall are pending, and the band is working on a new app for Flushing Meadows, in Queens, New York, the location of the 1964 World’s Fair. I caught up with Bluebrain’s Ryan Holladay for a few questions via email below:
What was the initial inspiration behind The National Mall?
The National Mall is the first in a series of location-aware albums that we are working on. We grew up here in Washington and with this park, so it seemed fitting to start with this one! Not to mention it was much easier to go back and forth everyday from our recording studio to the Mall to test it out than, say, drive to New York City where the next one is planned!
Do you think any areas of the Mall received preferential musical treatment, compositionally?
There were areas we knew would be visited more than others. For instance, the Washington Monument we spent a great deal of time with. That said, we really wanted to make sure that you could explore endlessly and discover new things. So really we took a lot of time to consider every area of the Mall.
Is music continuous during transitions between zones?
It depends. Sometimes the music will dip to near silence, but for the most part, it should be a continuous musical experience where one musical motif seamlessly blends into the next.
Which match-up of music and location are you most proud of and why?
Don’t make me choose! I think the Washington Monument really worked out well. We spend a great deal of time on this one, and I’m very proud of it.
So how do you and your brother usually divvy up musical responsibilities?
While we both write and play all the instruments between the two of us, except for violins and cellos and such, Hays is certainly the producer of the two of us. He records other bands in our studio, Iguazu, and has recorded a number of incredible records.
Do you think your app might distance the listener from the surrounding environment and from other people?
Interesting question! Perhaps. I guess it’s not exactly conducive to social interaction, but maybe sometimes you need a bit of solitude.
May 20, 2011
Planning on going out this evening, but looking for something a little…different? Then check out the nightlife at the second installment of the “Africa Underground“ events series at the National Museum of African Art from 7 to 11. There will be a feast of activities for the senses at this West Africa-meets-Caribbean themed night.
Lively up yourself as Kurow and the All Stars lay down a live reggae groove to start things off, and then get a little funkier as DJ Spyda spins Caribbean and West African beats into the later evening. Check out traditional African dance numbers performed by the Farafina Kan dance troupe and drummers. And the Moko Jumbie stilt dancers? They’ll most likely be doing things that will make my knees hurt just thinking about it.
But if you do have to sit down for a bit, you can take a break and listen to some traditional West African and Caribbean storytelling, and learn a few fashion tips at Yehie Moudou’s African textile headwrapping demonstration. And don’t worry, there will be specialty themed cocktails and finger foods available to keep you going.
The first “Africa Underground” event, which had an Africa meets Brazil theme, was a sold out, so make sure you order your tickets in advance here! As a little preview, I spoke to Yehie Moudou about the art of traditional African headwrapping below:
How did you learn the art of headwrapping, and how long have you been practicing the art?
I was born and raised in Africa before my family sent me out to live abroad, so it’s kind of the culture of a young girl to learn to wrap her head growing up for different occasions and different seasons. Headwrapping is a language, actually. It’s a way of communicating. To me, you cannot talk about Africa or African culture without talking about headwrapping.
What exactly does the headwrap symbolize or represent?
For an African woman, the headwrap says her age, her status and it communicates her wealth, which is different from status. Status is matriarchal position, and wealth is a woman who is very well-off. Two women can have the same status or they can both be matriarch. But sometimes you will have a matriarch who has wealth and one that doesn’t. And the headwrap communicates that clearly to the African society. That’s why I have to communicate that headwrapping is a non-verbal communication in African society. It’s a way, just like a tom beat will tell a village at dusk that it’s time to listen to the elders. The headwrap of a woman walking down the street will tell you if she’s a widow, a grandmother, or if she’s a married young woman. It’s an element in the daily living of an African woman.
What types of materials do you use for the wraps, and do you stick to certain colors?
Yes. We go with bright and shimmery colors, basically. [Sometimes] satin, but mainly cotton based material. In Africa the weather allows, or does not allow, leeway for most material. We go with cotton-based material because it’s comfortable and available and affordable.
And which wrap styles will you be doing Friday night?
I will cover different kinds. When Africa is spoken about it’s usually vague and unstructured. Africa covers so many cultures and tribes and languages, it’s a variety of headwrapping that’s readily available. What I’m going to do is touch on a couple of different styles that are particular to West Africa. You will have a style from Mali, a couple from the Ivory Coast, one from Benin, and the coast of Nigeria as well.
And can these be translated into everyday fashion for the average woman?
Absolutely! The headwrap is still in style. You will have a grandmother wearing a dashiki cloth with a headwrap, and her granddaughter will wear the same headwrap with a pair of jeans in a different style that still communicates the same femininity of an African woman. It’s timeless and still trendy.
May 17, 2011
Many a museum-goer has fantasized about the Hope Diamond. How would it feel to have the cool weight of that walnut-sized blue pool of a diamond dangling at your neck?
But not many people have gotten to wear the famous jewel. So when Smithsonian reader John Langlois sent us this 1944 image of his mother, Ethel Galagan, with it around her neck, we were intrigued.
Galagan was an employee of the Government Printing Office during World War II. For some reason, and Langlois isn’t sure why, but Galagan was invited to a party at the Washington, D.C. home of the wealthy socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, the owner of the Hope Diamond at the time.
McLean’s parties were legendary. According to Richard Kurin, in his book, Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem, McLean spared no expense and the guest list included “diplomats and dignitaries, royalty and national leaders, New Dealers and Republicans, scholars and entertainers.” Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture.
According to Langlois, his mother always maintained that General Omar Bradley, who at that time had achieved three stars out of his eventual five star ranking, and the influential Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Hugo Black were among the elite attendees that night.
Despite Galagan’s non-A-lister status, McLean asked her new friend to stand in the receiving line and greet guests as they entered.
Later that evening, McLean found Galagan and complained, “This thing is so damn heavy–you wear it for awhile!” And draped the necklace around Galagan’s neck. A friend had a camera, so her encounter with the Hope Diamond was captured on film for posterity.
And how did such a huge rock come to be in the possession of such a party girl like Evalyn McLean, you might ask? “Unconventional, young, rich, and spoiled” were the words Kurin used to describe the McLeans—Evalyn and her then-husband, Edward Beale McLean–at the time of their purchase of the gem in 1911.
The two had had more money than either knew what do with, and prior to their marriage Evalyn wrote that her fiance “had never been other than rich.” After joining their inherited mining and publishing fortunes in 1908 through marriage, they agreed to buy the stone from jeweler Pierre Cartier for a cool $180,000 in January of 1911. Aware of the supposed curse, as well as her inner desire for the gem, Evalyn wrote in her autobiography, “Then I put the chain around my neck and hooked my life to its destiny for good or evil.”
By the time of McLean’s death in 1947 at age 60, she had experienced a string of misfortunes that included her alcoholic husband running off with another woman, the bankruptcy of the family business and the early deaths of two of her children. All of these events added to the Hope Diamond’s reputation. McLean herself may not have bought into the mystique, however. “What tragedies have befallen me,” she wrote in 1936, “might have occurred had I never seen or touched the Hope Diamond. My observations have persuaded me that tragedies, for anyone who lives, are not escapable.”
After her death, the gem was sold to settle debts in McLean’s estate, to diamond merchant Harry Winston in 1949. In 1958, Winston donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. With a weight of 45.52 carats and an estimated value of more than $200 million, the infamous Hope Diamond remains one of the Smithsonian’s most popular and most iconic items.